A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Series of Home

We have entered the epoch of timeless time. At least, this is a key argument put forward by Manual Castells in his seminal, The Network Society. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and biotechnologies have eroded the logic of linear time. We may not be able to physically travel to points past, control the future or exist in multiple place simultaneously, but as technology develops so does our ability to experience disparate places and times.

In the case of the latter, Anthony Giddens refers to it as the 'phantasmagoric' self. Derived from the Greek phantasma, meaning apparition or ghost, the stress is on the second (or third, or nth) life lived through mediated 'distanciation'. I do not live in Colorado, but my figure looms under the surface as I insert myself through telephone calls and emails, bank transactions and votes cast.

What Giddens failed to consider was the reverse: the ghost of place imposing on the present. Of lives lived and imagined that seep into our day-to-day through media and memory.

London has become routine, but this last week+ has seen a confluence of pasts invading my present.

Partly this invasion is the product of masterful cinema. We have been enjoying a biweekly film night chez nous for the last month or so, and the most recent film struck a chord. Last Friday we watched the latest Coen brothers film: No Country for Old Men. Set in Texas in the 1980s, the film, which is eerily quiet, hangs together on its impressive yet understated cinematography. Its imagery is stark but effective and emotive. Indeed, it is so powerful that an otherwise banal scene sent chills down my spine. The shot?

A house sagging in the summer heat. Boxy, 80s-style cars line the street, the curb crumbling away.

It lasted only a few seconds, as it was only an establishing shot, but it was literally enough to make me jump. Something about the house or the cars or the street made me powerfully recall my childhood in Colorado. It was not a specific memory or event that stirred. Perhaps it was an amalgamation of childhood memories and imagined moments that were summed up in that one shot. The crumbling curb.

But that's just one sequence from one life that seems so far from now. We also watched Smoke Signals a few weeks back.  Visions of Walla Walla danced in my head as thunder clouds tumbled in across the rolling blue hills: a vision I look forward to seeing when I return in March for a weekend.

The most invasive moment, however, occurred while I was enjoying the crisp, sunny Sunday afternoon air along the Thames.  Settled on a park bench on the Albert Embankment, I sat reading Atonement by Ian McEwen (an excellent book, and I presume a good movie based on the reviews) when Briony, one of the main characters in the novel, came walking past.  She was a nurse working at St Thomas's during WWII, and at one point she ventures out to navigate the street-signless roads of London towards Clapham.  Narrated in the first person, she walked right past my bench, veered down South Lambeth Road, and commented on the park in front of my house as she passed.  How strange it was to her that there should be people playing tennis while London endured the blitz.

How strange it was to me, our encounter in timeless time and placeless place, as worlds melded and passenger jets buzzed overhead.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

OK Hillary, there's one thing I don't understand...

For having gone to the London School of Economics, you'd think I'd know something on the topic. But, much to the chagrin of my father, I have yet to take an economics course. That doesn't mean that I don't have an understanding of economic fundamentals, it just means that I have a difficult time answering the deeper questions.

I was just listening to the Democratic debate in South Carolina, and it started with Hillary touting her economic stimulus package.

As I was listening, I took notes, and here are the key points:

  • $110 billion economic stimulus plan

  • $70 billion goes to 'the mortgage crisis'

  • Moratorium on home foreclosures for 90 days

  • $650 to help offset high energy costs this winter

  • Invest in green collar jobs

  • Fund for communities who are dealing with housing crisis

  • 5-year freeze on interest rates

  • Rebates if anything left over

Ok, in terms of sheer monetary value, $110 billion is a bit less than Bush's $145 billion, but since we've already spent that times 10 (made up guess here) on the war in Iraq, maybe this is a good time to stop increasing our national deficit by a little. It's also probably better spent than Bush's proposed tax rebates...

$70 billion going to 'the mortgage crisis' is a little vague, but CNN forced her into soundbite mode. Presumably this is to help rescue the banks who have caused this situation to begin with and to keep 'sovereign funds' (xenophobic code word for outside investors with no loyalty to the US) from investing in American ventures.

Moratorium on home foreclosures for 90 days. This seems sensible to me, let's have a few months to figure things out and readjust.

$650 per qualified household to offset high energy costs? Not great. Let's start with installing low-energy light bulbs, being proactive about turning things off standby and not leaving unnecessary devices plugged in (and maybe as a longer-term solution we install outlets with switches on them like in the UK to help reduce consumption. If the American government is bothering to subsidise the TV digital switchover, you'd think we could subsidise energy-saving measures). Maybe we could also turn down the central heating and put on an extra two jumpers? Seriously, the US is still the largest energy consumer on the planet per capita, there's room for real cuts to be made.

Invest in green collar jobs. Great idea! Helps the environment, and is proactive to helping redefine America's edge in the global economy. Plus, see point above on energy reduction. Gold star, Hillary.

Fund for communities dealing with the mortgage crisis. Not against this one, but again, very vague.

5-year freeze on interest rates. Now this is one that I just simply do NOT understand. Hillary argues that we need stability to avoid more foreclosures. OK, but here's what I don't get:

One of the main ways that the US likes to deal with inflation is by raising and lowering interest rates (note the 75-basis-points reduction by the fed just yesterday). Higher rates make lending more expensive, reduces the amount of money in the market and helps tamp down prices. Now, worries of inflation are not usually far from an economist's mind, but the current situation seems particularly ripe for inflation: the US dollar is extremely weak, oil and gold are near all-time highs, there is a high risk of a worldwide food shortage, and government subsidies and the growth in biofuels have led to near record highs in comestible oils like palm, corn and soy. What about high energy prices, high food prices, and a weak dollar doesn't SCREAM inflation? Not to mention that with current rates of inflation in China, the price of manufactured goods is likely on the rise.

To me, high risk of inflation + no mechanism for controlling inflation = really bad idea!

So, Hillary, what am I not understanding? Are you not actually proposing to hold interest rates at the fed but only for mortgages? If that's the case, how exactly are you proposing to do that? What authority would you even have to do that?

If you are thinking federal interest rates, then how are you planning on controlling for inflation? Raising the value of the dollar globally (that would hurt exports, but I'm still not convinced that we should be trying to position the US as a manufacturing-driven export economy)? Pegging the dollar to the price of gold (with gold still near record highs, would this be helpful?)? Price fixing and subsidies for basic commodities (which generally seems like a bad idea. See, for example, Zimbabwe. Or even Egypt)? Holding down wages a la Gordon Brown's current fight with UK police officers (I thought Hillary wanted to support the middle class)?

Seriously, can anyone else out there explain this one to me, cause I don't get it!

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Global economy ≠ Global society

Now that the pump is primed and I have you thinking about Davos; and now that my duties as a member of the ODI comms team have been fulfilled, and I have promoted my colleagues' opinions. It's my turn:

What better place to start than the IHT?

You know something big is happening when an article published just today topped the 'most emailed in the last 24 hours' list and is quickly ascending the 'most emailed in the last 30 days' list. The article that's causing the sensation: On the cusp of economic history.

The main argument of the article is that the fate of the world economy has arrived at a crucial tipping point. 30 years of neo-liberal, pro-market values have led us to this climax of global uncertainty. With what Hillary Clinton fears may be a recession (in case you missed her stump speech(es), she pretends to be the only one in the world smart enough to have seen this one coming. Indeed, I'm tempted to call it the 2008 Hillary Clinton memorial recession if she keeps on like this!) looming heavily, the repercussions are already being felt throughout the global economy.

What's worse, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. A good measure of this is the GINI coefficient, a common measure of wealth distribution that ranges between 0 and 1, where 1 is extremely unequal and 0 is highly equitable. (See Wikipedia for a good introduction).

Consider this graphic representation of GINI coefficients from around the world since WWII:

The American GINI, sitting at 0.469 in 2005 is at its all-time high for the country since the statistic has been calculated. And what about China, which is supposed to be chipping away at American wealth? It's roughly equivalent to that of the US, and also sits at an all-time high for its country.

This, of course, runs counter to the fundamentals of neo-liberal economics which can be effectively summarised by the rather trite: 'a rising tide lifts all ships'. A stronger global economy was supposed to strengthen national economies. Or, in the words of the article:

"In theory [...] wages increase with productivity growth and all economies have a comparative advantage in the production of something."

But the theory isn't turning out as planned. The coming fear from the 'West' is that: "China and India combined will eventually be able to make just about everything the West can, only cheaper."

So what's the solution?

According to the majority of the candidates currently running for President in the US, the answer appears to be to fall prey to protectionist impulses. If you're Mitt Romney, it means bringing back auto manufacturing plants to Michigan (bad idea). If you're Barack Obama you're concerned about the so-called 'sovereign funds' bailing out ailing AMERICAN companies (so what?). If you're a good number of the candidates, it's about sending home all the illegal immigrants (really bad idea!! I mean people, if you want to lower the value of the dollar globally so that you can push your exports, you gotta have something to export. And that means that something is going to have to be manufactured... and if the majority of the population isn't willing to sit out on the farm harvesting soybeans, what is the US going to export exactly? This is where I also note that food oil prices are at record highs, and in 2007, for the first time in history, over half the world's population now lives in cities).

National economic and social protectionism is not just a bad idea, it's a head-in-the-sand approach that doesn't take into consideration fundamental economic, social, political and cultural changes that have already been set in motion through processes of globalisation.

The economy is not just a local problem, not just a regional problem, and certainly not just a national problem. It is a global one! If anything, the sub-prime debacle has taught us that.

Other GLOBAL problems include: the HIV/AIDS epidemic, tax shelters that undermine the effectiveness of government bodies, bird flu, the environment, migration, terrorism and security, human rights, animal welfare, and the impending global food shortage just to name a few.

In my view, the problem is not the neo-liberal agenda. The problem is that it has been pushed in an economic silo to the extent that there is now a large fissure between the global economy and the rest of reality. Sure, economic globalisation has had knock-on effects. The impressive expansion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) like the Internet across the globe is a good example.

But laws that impede migration maintain inequality between nations. Poverty prevents access to global flows. Societies based on strong family linkages hinder mobility. Isolation allows for irresponsible consumption. Social protection programmes like social security and national healthcare are feeling the pinch, and insecurity impedes progress.

For a global economy to function, we MUST have a global society to match--and how we achieve that is the real question that should be asked at Davos.

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Priming the Pump: ODI on... the Davos Question

This week sees the return of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland from the 23-27 January.

The director of the Overseas Development Institute (where I work), Simon Maxwell, is already on his way there to talk money with the best of them. But thanks to an innovative online comms manager (no not me, I'm not that immodest), the ODI also thought it'd try its hand at participative democracy and the 21st century public sphere by attempting to answer 'the Davos question'.

This YouTube-sponsored question asked: "What one thing do you think that countries, companies or individuals must do to make the world a better place in 2008?"

ODI found five of our researchers to express themselves on camera. All of the videos can be found on the ODI website, but I wanted to highlight two in particular.

The first opinion is by ODI Research Fellow Dr. Fletcher Tembo. I bring it to you here because: a) I'm proud of what he has to say, but also b) because I helped him with the script and filmed him. So, for all of you wonder what the heck it is I'm doing these days, here's a good example:

The other is by my friend, ODI Research Officer Pam Muckosy. I knew her through a mutual friend from China and we went to the LSE together. She basically got me my job at the ODI, so I thought the least I could do was to promote her video. Plus, it's brilliant, but we knew that already. ;o)

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Back in the USSR

In the most recent Presidential debate, the moderator started by doing his bit to strike fear into the hearts of US Americans (as Miss Teen South Carolina is so fond of calling us) by pressing the hypothetical issue of rogue nuclear bombs being smuggled into America and detonated (a la fictional TV show 24).

As part of his response, Governor Bill Richardson talked about the broader need for nuclear non-proliferation, something he had been involved with when he was Secretary of Energy under Clinton. (ok, still reasonable)

Then, and this is a direct quote, he went on to say:

"If I'm elected president, I will do two things. First, I will seek immediate negotiations with the Soviet Union and other nuclear states to reduce the number of nuclear weapons."

I haven't seen other bloggers or political commentators call him on this (and I did to a little bit of looking around), but is anybody else concerned that the SOVIET UNION IS NOT A COUNTRY?!

What ever made anybody think that this guy was ready for prime time?! Why ABC blocked Kucinich and let Richardson go on to make a fool of himself I do not understand!

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Friday, January 04, 2008

It all comes together

Last week I began posting interesting articles that I come across to my del.icio.us account goodreads tag (subscribe to the RSS feed to see what I'm reading as I'm reading it). Among the first articles that I posted with some chagrin was a Guardian (good UK newspaper) article entitled China Limits Providers of Internet Video.

The article explains that the Chinese government was implementing a programme aimed at internet video providers that would require them to register with the government and "require providers to report questionable content to the government". I was taken aback, and frankly worried.

Tudou.com (土豆, or tudou, literally earth bean, is Chinese for potato, and no, don't ask me why the number one Chinese video sharing website is called potato.com), the Chinese equivalent of YouTube is probably one of my most frequented sites.

Without a TV here in London, I get my Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, 24 (when writers are writing...) and Amazing Race fix from the site. With the sudden closure of tv-links.co.uk several months ago, I wouldn't know where to turn otherwise. ABC only allows viewers inside the US to watch their shows over the internet, and Channel 4, the British carrier of my mainstays Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives offers their free download service only to those with PCs.

Usually, once you get the heavy hand of the Chinese government involved, information stops flowing until either there is enough public outcry that the government changes is position asserting that it was always what they had intended to do, or until whatever key issue that sparked the overreach in the first place fades from the limelight. My problem was that I couldn't figure out what the issue was.

There was nothing on the international scene that seemed to me particularly embarrassing to the Chinese government. When Burma was attempting its ‘saffron revolution’ news from China’s western front was stifled. And when the once-every-five-years Chinese Party Congress got underway in mid-October, I could almost understand why the Chinese government pushed through one of its harshest crackdowns in recent memory, silencing websites, pulling TV commercials and so on.

But the Congress has been quiet for months now, and as we roll into the pre-Chinese New Year lull, I was simply stumped.

Deep down I knew that the Chinese government wasn't concerned with pirating. The Chinese economy would be growing at a third the size without pirated goods (Jeff’s estimate not based in any fact whatsoever). It couldn't be amoral behaviour, could it?

Now my fear crept from my favourite TV shows to my favourite Chinese home videos. What would I do without my weekly dose of laughter at Hong laowai (Red Foreigner, who might be cute but REALLY can NOT sing!)?

Was the Chinese government going to start taking away user generated content? And if so, the question still remained. Why?!

It all came together this morning. Searching for news of Obama’s win in Iowa, I stumbled across yet another article on the Guardian that finally provided the answer: China Bans Film Censored for Sex Scenes.

According to the article, a new film called “Lost in Beijing” about the experiences of migrant workers in Beijing was released after censors stripped it of ten minutes of “graphic” sex scenes. The government accused the film of releasing uncensored versions and pulled it from general release.

To no avail the film crew countered that it was the film pirates and not they who let out the uncensored film. “Why would I give the movie to pirates and hurt my own movie?'' Fang [the director] said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. `We are the victims of piracy. We are the biggest victims,'’ he said.”

The Chinese government wasn’t budging, though, accusing directors of showing the uncensored version at the Berlin Film Festival. According to Xinhuanet.com, China’s official news agency, this has earned the production company two year’s closure.

"This also violated China's film administration regulation," the SARFT official said. Fang said they used the original version because they had no time to prepare a German version for the German audience.

On Dec. 29, 2007, SARFT issued a ban prohibiting producers of erotic movies from competing for any film awards. The ban also prohibits directors and leading actors from taking part in such any awards.

Allowing a film to go forward then pulling it suddenly sounded typical of the Chinese government, but it indicated that there was something else afoot that was causing the kerfuffle.

Then I remembered, while listening to NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me last weekend during the ‘Bluff the Listener’ segment, there was a story about Chinese government doctors recommending against viewers trying sex acts from the censored version of Ang Lee’s most recent film "Lust, Caution" at home. Reuter’s quoted the doctors as saying:

‘Most of the sexual maneuvers in 'Lust, Caution' are in abnormal body positions,’ the report quoted Yu Zao, a deputy director at a women's hospital in southern Guangdong province, as saying.

‘Only women with comparatively flexible bodies that have gymnastics or yoga experience are able to perform them. For average people to blindly copy them could lead to unnecessary physical harm,’ Yu said.

Somehow I had missed the sensation that "Lust, Caution" had caused in China. Or more rightly, the sensation that it’s deleted scenes who had found their way onto video sharing sites had caused. The IHT reported that fans were even streaming across the border to Hong Kong to watch the uncensored version. And the Taipei Times notes that one young Beijing man is even suing the Chinese government arguing that the censorship “denied him his right to information and wants 500 yuan (US$67) for mental anguish and apologies from the theater and SARFT.”

Now, I like Ang Lee and his films as much as (or more than) anybody, but what can I say. If I can’t watch my Ugly Betty because of videos like this (note link is rated NC-17 in the US), I’m gonna be pissed.

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